4. The Second Great Awakening


Around the year 1800, in the period following the War of Independence, American society experienced the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840). This phenomenon was the natural consequence of the fact that the Americans gained their freedom. Winthrop’s ideal set in motion the process of formation of the American nation and generated the First Great Awakening; the latter defined the American identity and America’s special role, generating in turn the American Revolution. Now, given the fact that the British problem was solved and America managed to take its destiny into its own hands, the next step was the materialization of Winthrop’s ideal. Unlike the First Great Awakening – which aimed to emphasize America’s extraordinary destiny – the Second Great Awakening focused on creating a utopian society.

The success of the war gave rise to ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

... effect of the exceptionalism was paranoia. While the visible and exterior enemy, Great Britain, was defeated, the Second Great Awakening created the hysteria of the invisible enemy, which comes out right from among the American people. Even from the beginning of the revolution the Americans began to have paranoid feelings regarding intruders, spies or agents of Satan who aimed to undermine their sacred mission. Cotton Mather’s witches turned into Jews, the Illuminati or Freemasons. The patriotic fanaticism furiously fell upon everything that did not seem to meet the new standards. The evangelists were looking for corruption and the hidden work of the devil right in the heart of the nation. This is how Freemasonry began to be perceived as a conspiracy of the devil that instrumented the French Revolution and atheism, and during the Second Great Awakening, allegedly, it planned to destabilize and overthrow the American ideals. Indeed, the Freemasons, in their characteristic style, were operating behind closed doors and enjoyed a tremendous development in the New World. This aspect generated suspicions that turned into the wildest conspiracy theories. The Freemasons were often accused of plots and conspiracies through which they were aiming to take the power and to introduce devilish laws, to take the control of the cultural and educational agencies and to undermine the principles of patriotism and evangelical revival. Another famous suspicion was that members of the evil organization “Illuminati of Bavaria” were hiding among the sincere German groups. This was the beginning of the apocalyptic conspiracy theories, in which the Antichrist has the form of a subversive agent, who rises from within society and acts behind the curtain through secret agents.1032

While the First Great Awakening was credited with a role in creating the republic, the Second Great Awakening helped the rise of Jacksonian democracy and prepared the stage for the Civil War. Against all odds, the Americans defeated the most powerful empire of the world, just like the Israelites repeatedly defeated overwhelming enemy armies. The newly American nation freed itself from the “Egyptian” bondage, but now it had to pass the test of the “desert.” For the Millennial Kingdom to be established, social diseases such as slavery, poverty, prostitution, domestic violence, alcoholism and gender inequality had to be eradicated. The first missionary women of America and women’s suffrage were the products of the egalitarianism of the Second Great Awakening. In 1790 the doctor Benjamin Rush published An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind in which he argued that alcohol causes physical and mental damage. In the following decades a large number of temperance societies were established; all demanded the reduction or the complete ban of alcohol consumption, although it was known that the substance can be used for beneficial purposes as well. The believers fought vices and urged the government to adopt legislations according to their ideals.1033

The greatest challenge of the Second Great Awakening was slavery, which revealed America’s duplicitous attitude. Monarchy and slavery are very similar institutions: they both have as defining element the tyrannical relationship between a leader and his subjects. America happily rejected the monarchical system, but it was not thrilled at all to abolish slavery. This abominable institution brought huge economic benefits. So, depending on interests, the religious views regarding slavery varied regionally, with preachers in the South defending it and pastors in the North arguing against it. The difference of opinion tensioned the relations between the Northern and the Southern congregations and caused schisms.

Ironically, both sides used the Holy Scripture to support their view. Throughout history biblical passages on the use and regulation of slavery have been used as justification for the keeping of slaves. In addition, slavery has existed in all ages and all civilizations, advanced or primitive. Thus, when abolitionism was proposed, laymen and clerics alike vociferously spoke against it, citing the Bible’s acceptance of slavery as proof that this is the natural order of things. Previously, George Whitefield, the “Great Itinerant” of the First Great Awakening, campaigned in the Province of Georgia for the legalization of slavery. Slave owners often resisted the conversion of slaves to Christianity, fearing that spiritual equality would be followed by a movement of civil equality. One pro-slavery argument stated, as in the case of Native Americans, that the Negroes do not have a soul. Another argument stated that they do have a soul, but the people with dark-colored skin are the progenies of Cain, who was punished by God with a corporal mark after he killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:15). And another argument said that they are the descendants of Ham,1034 Canaan’s father, who was cursed by Noah to perpetual slavery: “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Genesis 9:25).

Despite such determined opposition, the Methodists, the Baptists and the Presbyterians absorbed the largest number of black slaves. After they freed them and helped them organize themselves in religious groups, new congregations were established especially in the states of South Carolina and Virginia.1035 John Wesley, unlike his friend Whitefield, said that “liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air. And no human law can deprive him of that right, which he derives from the law of nature.”1036 Thus, at the beginning of the Second Great Awakening the American Methodists made anti-slavery sentiments a condition of church membership, on the ground that the institution of slavery contradicted their strict morality.1037 The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon named slavery as “the foulest blot that ever stained a national escutcheon, and may have to be washed out in blood.”1038 Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of the preacher Lyman Beecher, wrote the famous novel Uncle’s Tom Cabin as a protest against slavery. In the conclusions of the 1852 edition Stowe argued that a slave-owning America is an America that failed from its divine purpose and it would bear God’s terrible judgment:

If this persecuted race, with every discouragement and disadvantage, have done thus much, how much more they might do, if the Christian church would act toward them in the spirit of her Lord! This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and unredressed injustice has in it elements of this last convulsion. ... O Church of Christ, read the signs of the times! ... Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer.1039

But the conversion to Christianity of the Negroes attracted an undesirable effect: the apocalyptic rebellion. The Christian God is a god of the oppressed, poor and in need. In the South, after she had seen her child whipped, a Negress cried to Heaven:

Thar’s a day a-comin’! Thar’s a day a-comin’! ... I hear de rumblin’ ob de chariots! I see de flashin’ ob de guns! White folks’ blood is a runnin’ on the ground like a riber, an’ de dead’s heaped up dat high! ... Oh Lor’! hasten de day when de blows, an’ de bruises, an’ de aches, an’ de pains, shall come to de white folks, an’ de buzzards shall eat ‘em as dey’s dead in de streets. ... Oh Lor’! gib me de pleasure ob livin’ till dat day.1040

The slaves did not know to read and they could not know about Christ’s coming without the influence of Christian Europeans. Approximately 250 slave riots took place in North America until the end of the Civil War. In the eyes of the most faithful blacks the white man received demonic features; and from conversion until liberating visions there was only a step. This was the case of Nat Turner, a slave who came to believe that he was a messenger of the latter days and he had the divine mission to free all blacks and kill the whites. In 1831, in the State of Virginia, Turner led a group of rebels that killed 60 people, the largest number of fatalities caused by a slave uprising in Southern United States.1041

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